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A concerted campaign helps US textile industry comeback

When the next Miss America strolls down the runway, the textile and apparel industry plans to change the entire fabric of her experience, and they want it to be all-American. In return for promotional appearances, the Crafted with Pride in the USA Council plans to present her with a wardrobe and other ``soft goods'' (towels, draperies, upholstery) made in the United States. It's just another example of the management, technology, trade, and media campaigns being marshaled to slow the loss of textile business to cheap-labor countries.

Congress' Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) says overcapacity in textiles has led to ``depressed prices and widespread use of import protection, export subsidies, dumping, and even quota fraud and smuggling.'' European Community countries and Japan responded to this with import restrictions. As a result, huge quantities of textiles and apparel landed on US shores.

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Bilateral agreements under the ``Multi-Fiber Arrangement'' were supposed to limit import growth to 6 percent a year, maintaining the existing market share. Instead, between 1980 and 1986, imports soared 163 percent, according to Department of Commerce figures, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs and threatening to wipe out entire segments of the industry. At the same time the US market grew only 1 or 2 percent a year.

Plant closings have hit hardest in the Southeast. Of 15,500 US looms eliminated from 1983 to mid-1985, 63 percent were in South Carolina, 32 percent in Georgia and North Carolina.

But with 726,000 workers, textiles is an industry worth saving.

A bill to roll back imports was vetoed by President Reagan last year. A new bill, which passed the House Subcommittee on Trade Tuesday, sets overall quotas, rather than targeting developing countries, and it does not require rollbacks of current import levels.

Today, the OTA report states, the US textile industry is the most productive in the world. Using technology imported from Europe and Japan, an American worker can crank out fabric at a rate 1,000 times greater than his 18th-century counterpart. With robotics, air-jet looms, and other technology, analysts expect further boosts in productivity.

The new industry, they say, will involve a smaller, more skillful work force with smarter management and better working conditions. Already many jobs are quieter, with less of the airborne cotton dust blamed for respiratory ailments.

Ironically, while high-tech improvements may save parts of the textile industry, they also eliminate some jobs. Of the 700,000 textile jobs lost between 1972 and 1984, government figures indicate that two-thirds were because of technology, and only one-third because of imports. But Clemson University economist Ryan Amacher says the drive to automate would have been much slower without the pressure of imports.

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Management innovations are helping the industry. Milliken & Co., Seminole Manufacturing Company, and Wal-Mart Stores have experimented with a new ``Quick Response'' restocking technique, the retailer's equivalent of the ``just-in-time'' technique used by some automakers. It allows factories to slash turnaround time for filling orders and reorders. Then the retailer can make better forecasts of demand, keep a smaller inventory of each size and color, reduce stock-outs and markdowns, and carry a wider variety of sizes and items in stock.

The Crafted With Pride in the USA Council, sponsor of the experiment, estimates that Quick Response can save $25 billion in a $125 billion industry.

In 1984, hundreds of companies and two labor unions formed the Crafted With Pride Council to persuade consumers, retailers, and manufacturers to buy US-made ``soft goods.'' Council members pledged $40 million for a three-year campaign. TV commercials, featuring such stars as Bob Hope urge viewers to look for the ``Made in USA'' label.

Surveys indicate more than 40 percent of consumers plan to look for the label when shopping. This spring, council members deemed the campaign a success and pledged support for another three years.

In another cooperative move, apparel and textile manufacturers and labor organizations contributed $5 million and the federal government $3 million to form the Textile/Clothing Technology Corporation - dubbed (TC)2. The corporation has developed automated systems for sewing the sleeves of men's suits. Such projects, however, are small compared with research by other countries.

In the early 1980s, for example, the Japanese government provided $60 million to research improved apparel manufacturing. More recently, the Japanese have begun planning a system where a salesman in a clothing store would take a hologram of a customer's body and computer-controlled machines would then tailor a garment.

While US textile manufacturers often use the latest technology, almost all the innovations in textile machinery come from overseas. Reflecting the loss of a once-strong position, spare parts represent about 92 percent of sales by the US textile machinery industry.

Economist George Wino of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute argues that without textile legislation, ``the US will continue to have a declining share of the market and possibly a decline in absolute volume.''

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